Coast Guard urged to overhaul IT practices

Poor management oversight and lackluster computer security policies and practices plague the U.S. Coast Guard's information technology system, according to a new General Accounting Office report. Congress' agency watchdog said that although the Coast Guard had many important IT management policies in place, it has not consistently put those policies into practice. In "Coast Guard Practices Can Be Improved" (GAO-01-190), GAO evaluated the Coast Guard's information technology policies in five areas: investment management; IT architecture; software acquisition and development; information security; and human capital. The Coast Guard fared the worst with its policies and practices on tracking IT assets and overseeing its IT investment, according to the report. GAO rated the agency's computer security and human capital practices as average at best. "USCG [the Coast Guard] has no policy for developing and maintaining an IT asset inventory. In practice, USCG has several different lists of assets, but they are not consistent or comprehensive. One key list, the Agency Capital Plan, summarizes the IT systems in development and in operation, but does not capture and track the assets--such as hardware, software, and human capital--comprising these systems," said the report. The Coast Guard's information security policies won praise, but GAO questioned USCG's follow-through on practice. GAO determined that only three of 38 computer systems have obtained proper security accreditation, and that refresher training on emerging security threats and technologies is needed. GAO also cited the agency for failing to address reported weaknesses in physical security controls. On the human capital front, GAO said that the Coast Guard did not have a complete inventory of its workforce's IT skills and does not report on the status of its recruiting and training programs. The Coast Guard--the fifth branch of the armed services--is responsible for ensuring maritime safety, national security, protecting natural resources and cracking down on illegal drugs and migrants. In the last few years, the agency has voiced concerns over performing its multiple duties with aging equipment, an inexperienced workforce and a short supply of funds. The Coast Guard's four major acquisition projects--including a project that will modernize the agency's distress and response system--account for 25 percent of the agency's fiscal 2000 IT budget. In each of the five areas evaluated, GAO provided the Coast Guard with recommendations, including:
  • Establish a comprehensive inventory of IT assets that includes up-to-date cost and schedule information.
  • Develop and oversee a thorough IT investment portfolio.
  • Implement an effective computer security program.
  • Correct IT security weaknesses.
  • Assess the IT civilian workforce's skills.
  • Document progress on recruiting strategies and use results to improve human capital strategies.

GAO praised the Coast Guard for putting sound policy guidance into practice in some key areas, including software acquisition planning and project management and contract tracking and oversight. Transportation Department and Coast Guard officials generally agreed with GAO's recommendations and said they are working to put them into practice.

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